Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

New approaches to evaluating social innovation

Aug. 8, 2012, 5:23 a.m., Posted by Mayur Patel and Elizabeth R. Miller

Social innovation by definition is dynamic, as projects hoping to catalyze large-scale change don’t often have a clear beginning, middle or end. For foundations and non-profits interested in making a demonstrated impact, this fact necessitates that they constantly evaluate their efforts and adjust strategies based on what they’re learning.

And yet many traditional approaches to evaluation aren’t effective when it comes to understanding what drives social innovation. A new report, released today by FSG and the Center for Evaluation Innovation, explores the ways many common evaluation approaches constrain innovation, for example, by trying to test a model too early in its development, and fixating on predetermined plans and original metrics that don’t evolve in response to the dynamic context.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors offer lessons about an emerging approach called “developmental evaluation,” which provides insights throughout the life of the program, allowing for adjustments in real time.

The report, “Evaluating social innovation” highlights several case studies of evaluation efforts done by foundations, including an in-depth look at Knight Foundation’s five-year, $24 million Knight Community Information Challenge. Responding to the rapid disruptions in journalism and the decline of community news and information, the challenge encourages community and place-based foundations to focus on supporting local news and information projects.

The profile summarizes how Knight’s strategy and assessment team and the communities program designed the evaluation to help provide ongoing learning, allowing for real-time changes to the initiative and helping inform the next iteration of Knight’s work  with community and place-based foundations to promote informed and engaged communities. A full evaluation of Knight’s Community Information Challenge is available online.

In addition to the case studies, the report offers a way for foundations to think about what evaluation approach is the best fit for each life stage of an initiative.

It also outlines conditions for a successful development evaluation which includes understanding whether an organization’s leadership is willing to take risks, its values and cultural support for innovation and its ability to provide sufficient time and resources to the evaluation.

The report is authored by FSG’s Managing Director Hallie Preskill and the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s Associate Director Tanya Beer.

“If we are serious about finding and using innovative ideas and practices to help solve complex, deeply rooted, and pervasive social problems, then we must have access to high quality, timely, and useful information from the beginning of an innovation’s design throughout its evolution,” its authors recommend.

By Knight's Mayur Patel, vice president of strategy and assessment, and Elizabeth Miller, communications associate.